Most Americans saw the protests and civil unrest in Ferguson from the vantage point of a news helicopter or a reporter standing safely behind police barricades.
“Whose Streets?” — opening this weekend at Speed Cinema — chronicles events from the perspective of protesters and activists who took to the streets of the predominantly black St. Louis suburb in August 2014 after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American.
First-time feature directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis were in Ferguson immediately following the Brown shooting, and along with cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar, captured raw, urgent images of the unrest and the heavily militarized police response to it.
In “Whose Streets?,” they intercut their own footage with smartphone video and social media reports to create an immersive, emotionally gripping portrait of not only the unrest but also the activism that has grown from it.
To be clear, the filmmakers are activists and do not propose to examine the sometimes contentious details of the Brown shooting and other events in Ferguson.
Instead, they focus on moments — an unarmed protester is swarmed by laser-site pointers from police weapons; musician and activist Tef Poe passionately urges fellow protesters to not escalate to violence in a fight they can’t win; and Mike Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, learns from a neighbor’s cell phone images that the dead man lying behind police lines for hours is her son.
“When the news coverage came around the case and around what happened, we only get small tidbits, we didn’t get the entire perspective,” said Dr. Kaila Story, a co-host of WFPL’s “Strange Fruit” podcast who will help facilitate talk-back sessions following several screenings of “Whose Streets?”
“I remember that after a couple of months of the story being out, folks didn’t even know who Mike Brown’s parents were, they didn’t even know their names,” she said. “(Audience members) will get details and a more holistic perspective on the movement.”
The Speed has scheduled moderated discussions at five screenings of “Whose Streets?” this weekend, along with five additional screenings next weekend. Joining Story as moderators will be her “Strange Fruit” co-host Jaison Gardner and Trinidad Jackson, a research associate with the University of Louisville’s Office of Public Health Practice and a Ferguson-area native.
Jackson was a UofL student in 2014 and returned to Ferguson, incorporating his experiences there into his academic program. The first screening will be introduced by Dr. Cherie Dawson-Edwards, the acting director of UofL’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, a sponsor of the Speed screenings.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” another film about race in America, quickly sold out its initial screenings in February, and Speed film curator Dean Otto said he wanted to ensure the museum was ready to meet what he expects to be equally high interest in “Whose Streets?”
“I really underestimated the interest in this community for this kind of discourse about race in America,” Otto said of the demand for seats in February. “People are really hungry to engage in a discussion.”
As the narrative of “Whose Streets?” advances, the filmmakers focus on six activists and their paths following the initial unrest. Brittany Ferrell, who put her academic career on hold to pursue her activism, emerges as the film’s focal point.
An articulate and often fiery personality — she screams angrily at protesters who abandon a human blockade of I-70 when arrests seem imminent — Ferrell’s relationship and eventual marriage to fellow activist Alexis Templeton is the main thread in the film’s artfully constructed arc.
Much of the footage in the film can be described as “raw,” but Folayan and Davis have woven it into a brisk, tight film that establishes and carries through on its central theme of ongoing activism. Extensive footage of Ferrell, Templeton and other characters interacting with their children is revisited in the film’s finale, which expresses at least some optimism for future.
Along the way, they continue to capture highly emotional moments, most notably when a black police officer tears up as she is confronted by protesters outside a hearing for Darren Wilson, the officer who was ultimately not charged in the shooting of Mike Brown.
“You say how you really feel when you’re around your friends and family,” the protesters tell her.
Gardner said he hopes the talk-back sessions hosted by himself and Story will be free-flowing, based on questions or perspectives audience members want to share.
In fact, Gardner had only skimmed the film at the time of this interview, so that his reaction to the first screening of “Whose Streets?” can be “organic and fresh,” in step with audience members’ perspectives.
“I think there is probably no more timely of a film than ‘Whose Streets?,’ especially considering what is going on sociopolitically — you know, what happened in Charlottesville … what happened here in Louisville with the Trump rally, what is happening nationwide with people pushing back against white supremacy, against police brutality,” he said. “I think this film is going to be a perfect film to really contextualize the movement.”
“Whose Streets?” is screening at Speed Cinema on Friday, Aug. 25, at 7 p.m., with an introduction by Cherie Dawson-Edwards and a post-screening discussion led by Trinidad Jackson; Saturday, Aug. 26, at noon, 3 and 7 p.m., with post-screening discussions led by Gardner and Story; Sunday, Aug. 27, at 3 p.m., with a post-screening discussion led by Jackson; Friday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 2, at noon, 3 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 3, at 3 p.m.
Advance tickets can be purchased online. The Speed Art Museum is located at 2035 S. Third St.